By CONOR NICHOLL
Brandi Fowler has taught in the Liberal school district for 15-plus years and served as a girls’ basketball varsity assistant the previous six winters. Fowler saw Liberal post a 21-2 record in ’08-09 under former coach Shane Stout, who has since enjoyed great success with K.C. Piper.
Then, the Redskins did not capture more than 12 victories in a season until ’16-17 when coach Carter Kruger led a six-win improvement to 17-6. Fowler said probably around five years ago several fathers had girls who were interested in basketball. The fathers developed travel teams and took the squads anywhere they wanted to play.
“It really is the community support and all the great parent support that we have here,” Fowler said. “They deserve the credit really.”
Kruger then paced Liberal to 23-2, 22-1 and 23-0 marks the last three winters. Last season, the Redskins finished undefeated in Class 6A and reached the Forever Four before the tournament was cancelled from the coronavirus pandemic. Liberal girls won their first state tournament games in 30-plus seasons in ’18 and ’20.
The senior class won four straight conference titles. Machia Mullens and Katie Horyna finished 1-2 all-time in Liberal in scoring and shared Sports in Kansas 6A Player of the Year. Kruger was SIK 6A Coach of the Year. After last year, Kruger elected to take a job with Liberal administration.
Mullens signed with Division I University of Missouri-Kansas City, and Horyna at Division I Abilene Christian. Fowler called taking over for Kruger “really a no brainer.”
“I love the girls,” Fowler said. “I love this town, and it’s just a great opportunity. Coach Kruger has built a great program, and we are just hoping to keep it going in the right direction and continue to produce really good kids and really good athletes.”
This season, the wave of talent and depth has continued for the Redskins – which has already surpassed preseason expectations. There were six girl squads and two boy teams that finished undefeated in ’19-20.
Liberal was the only one unranked nearly all of December by the Kansas Basketball Coaches Association.
The Redskins, though, have opened 5-0 and ran their winning streak to 28 games. Liberal is now ranked No. 10 in Class 6A, though fourth in 6A in MaxPreps’ statistical-only classification rankings. The Redskins have won all games by double figures, including 66-56 versus Wichita Trinity, which features Washburn signing Austin Broadie.
Overall, Liberal has won 31 in a row on the road and 59 straight in the regular season, according to Redskin broadcasting. Liberal and Dodge City, which have their first of two WAC matchups at DC on Jan. 15, are both undefeated and state ranked.
“Really our goal every single practice is to get better everyday,” Fowler said. “And we worry about ourselves, and we worry about how we are trying to be better teammates, and better basketball players, and we’ll figure the rest will take care of itself.”
The roster includes five seniors: 5-foot-10 Aubrey Warden, Reece Hay, Halle Payton, Logan Dodge and Shatarrika Ross. Warden has signed with Newman basketball, and Hay with Tabor cross country/track. Liberal is plus-8.6 over opponents in the third quarter, its best of any quarter.
“As a coaching staff, we just challenge the girls during halftimes,” Fowler said. “They challenge each other, and we have great leadership in our locker room that comes from the girls, and not necessarily the coaches.”
As well, Liberal has talented juniors Ashley Carrillo and Bree Horyna, along with standout freshmen Hailey Contreras and Elle Hatcher. Bree is Katie’s sister. Reece’s older sister, Whitney, was a key former Redskin who signed with Bethany basketball.
“The biggest thing is that basketball became more popular here,” Fowler said. “There were some years that it wasn’t everyone’s first choice, but now we have little girls starting from really young ages, and maybe they might be little sisters, or just people that are just fans. Their parents support the program really well, and they just start at a really young age, and it’s a popular sport in our town, so we want to keep that going.”
Contreras is ranked fourth and Hatcher sixth in the Kansas Class of 2024 by Prep Girls Hoops. Contreras played an extensive summer schedule. Fowler sees similarities between Contreras and Horyna/Mullens at this point in her career.
“She’s definitely in the same category as them as far as a freshman goes, and she has a lot more to learn,” Fowler said. “A lot that we would like to see her develop, but she definitely is very promising for our program.”
Overall, Liberal has averaged 1.04 points per possession, including 37.4 percent on treys. Liberal has sunk 8.6 treys per game and collected 39 percent of available offensive rebounds.
“We want to get basketballs in girls’ hands as young as we can,” Fowler said. “And just help them develop their skills.”
In the last two seasons, the Redskins had 1.02 points and .98 points per possession. Last winter, Liberal averaged 4.3 made treys per game and shot 28 percent from the field. Fowler said Liberal is running a “more complex offense” that’s “a little bit of motion.” The team calls it the Lady Red. The personnel had yielded more 3-point shooting.
On Dec. 18, Liberal went to Hays High for the final game before the winter break. Hays High led 11-9 after the first quarter, and Carrillo missed a large chunk of the first half with foul trouble. However, Contreras came in and scored nine straight points. She finished with a career-high 22 points. Carrillo eventually sunk five treys for 15 points. Liberal limited Hays High to one second half point in a 54-23 win.
“We don’t have a lot of size as far as height goes, but we have a lot of size in our heart,” Fowler said. “…If the girls are open to shoot, then they are going to take the shot, and we are also going to work on getting the ball inside more.”
In ’19-20, Warden delivered eight points and 5.7 rebounds. Warden has more than 400 career points and 360 career rebounds.
“She is a super, physical player,” Fowler said. “She is really strong. She is strong mentally and strong physically, so that’s really helpful for us. So she is not afraid to go in there and bang with somebody else, even if she is not as tall as them. Off the court, I mean’s she a super intense person, and so the girls really feed off of that and her competitiveness definitely.”
Carrillo, who missed her freshman year with injury, is among the state’s best junior point guards. She delivered 5.3 points, 3.3 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game as a sophomore. Horyna, known for competitiveness and tenacity, delivered 2.2 points and two rebounds a game in ’19-20. Hay had 2.2 points.
“Just brings a lot of leadership to our team and the girls have a lot of respect for her,” Fowler said of Hay.
This season, Carrillo is up to 18.2 points per game. Hay, Warden and Horyna have all averaged at least six points a contest. Warden and Horyna have combined for more than 10 rebounds per game. Horyna won an award earlier for a December performance because of her hustle.
“Bree really holds everybody to really high standards,” Fowler said. “So as hard as she plays, she expects everyone around her to play just as hard, and she just really makes sure that everyone is playing to their top level and going 100 percent all the time.”
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